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Spring is here which means California road trip season is just around the corner. We cannot wait to fuel up the car, pack some road-trip-friendly snacks, turn up our favorite playlist, and drive along the California coast.
How Long Should A San Francisco to Palm Springs Road Trip Be?
Our home state is one of our favorite places to travel, but, to do the state justice, we think you’d need to commit to a week-long California road trip.
Ana Kamin, the editor of the online magazine, California Weekend, proved us wrong when she went on a weekend road trip that hit some of the state’s major highlights from San Francisco to Palm Springs. We were so impressed we asked her to recreate the ultimate long weekend California road trip itinerary for us.
San Francisco to Palm Springs Road Trip
A few years back, I moved to the Golden State and was immediately in awe of California’s beauty and diversity. To discover as much as possible as quickly as possible, I would go on California road trips almost every weekend.
Over the years, I got to know California in ‘n’ out (pun totally intended). Wide beaches, majestic mountains, enchanting deserts, lush forests, world-famous cities, charming small towns — it became clear that California has it all.
San Francisco to Palm Springs Road Trip Tips
One weekender I’ve had on repeat is a San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip because there is always something new to see from a coastal cove to a food spot. My last time driving this road trip, I extended it to go from San Francisco to Palm Springs and, dare I say, it was even better.
Before we go on, a reminder to check out our top California road trip tips. Also, note that this total drive is over 500 miles so it’s best done over 4 to 5 days, as we’ve broken it up here. If you need help deciding what to do and where to stay, our California trip planner services are here to help you plan your perfect itinerary.
San Francisco to Palm Springs Day-By-Day Road Trip Itinerary
So, here it is my ultimate long weekend California road trip itinerary that I’m super excited to share it with you, dear Salt & Wind Travel readers. Let’s hit the road!
Day 1 | San Francisco to Monterey (~120 miles)
The Pacific Ocean, Lighthouses, and Clam Chowder
Start your California road trip itinerary by heading from San Francisco to Monterey Peninsula. Most people drive the 101 freeway until they merge onto Highway 1 but I say take the Great Highway starting at Ocean Beach. The payoff is picture-perfect seaside views of surfers waiting for waves on the wide-open Pacific.
Stop at Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay for a cup of warming chowder or the famous Dungeness crab roll. After, take a short break at Point Pigeon Lighthouse and clock in some history time at this the oldest lighthouse in California.
Before you arrive in Monterey, plan on a quick detour to Capitola, a little, candy-colored town just south of Santa Cruz. It was built as a vacation resort but we really like it because the colorful houses will make your Instagram feed pop.
By the way, there is a canyon under the Monterey Bay that rivals the Grand Canyon in height and depth and makes the area ideal for everything from agriculture to winemaking — impressive, right?
STAY: The Monterey Tides is a Joie de Vivre hotel directly on the beach.
Day 2 | Monterey to Cambria (~150 miles)
Winding Coast, Cypress Forests, and Pastries
Get up early and walk the beach because, let’s be real: the crashing waves, the rising sun, the sea air are what a California Coastal road trip is all about and today we’re driving to Big Sur.
Fuel up for the full day ahead with a proper breakfast. Drive a few miles south to the charming village of Carmel-By-The-Sea (which is worthy of a weekend stay on its own FYI) and order a hearty breakfast at the Tuck Box.
After breakfast head to Point Lobos National Park, which you could hike for days, but you don’t have all that time. Instead park in the main lot, head through the forest to the ocean, and walk along the roughed coast. Yes, this is a slightly more touristy route, but it’s no less spectacular.
As soon as you head south from the Monterey Bay, the majestic Big Sur part of Highway 1 begins and winds on and on for over 100 miles.
If you need another quick bite, stop in Big Sur at the legendary Big Sur Bakery for a full lunch or just a bite of their delicious pastries. Know that there will be many photo ops along the way but, if you decide to do only one, have it be McWay Falls —one of California’s most iconic views. Aim to arrive at the sleepy town of Cambria right around sunset.
STAY: The Cambria Beach Lodge is a 50s motel turned hip overnight stay with a delicious complimentary breakfast.
Day 3 | Cambria to Malibu (~190 miles)
Palms, Pink Champagne Cake, And Old Hollywood Glam
From Cambria, you leave the wild coast behind and the SoCal vibes begin. Beaches, palms, yacht harbors are what awaits you between Cambria and Malibu.
At San Luis Obispo, Highway 1 makes a slight wiggle inland, and one place not to be missed on this detour is Madonna Inn. The quirky, very colorful motel is a tourist magnet, but I think it’s unquestionably worth seeing so much carefully curated kitsch in one place. If you are not staying here for lunch, make sure to grab a slice of their super famous pink champagne cake. It’s a buttery, creamy carb dream.
Continue to Malibu, make stops and enjoy the scenery. Once in Malibu, before you, check-in into your hotel, wind down from the drive at Malibu Farm Cafe with cool agave lemonade and their delicious crab cakes with caper aioli.
STAY: Now known as the Native Malibu, this formerly was a spot where celebrities like Marilyn Monroe came to escape the paparazzi.
Day 4 | Malibu to Palm Springs (~130 miles)
Palm Tree Views, Hot Desert, and #thatpinkdoor
Since you got a dose of Southern California in Malibu, we are skipping Los Angeles and heading straight to the desert oasis of Palm Springs. Stock up on some road food snacks (perhaps with a quick take on our downtown LA food crawl), because, chances are you will be stuck at least once in the world-famous LA traffic. But hey, it’s famous, so you can count it as “things to experience in LA.”
Once in Palm Springs, it’s all about pool time. Or maybe not. Palm Springs has so much more to offer than cocktails at the pool (though we fully support that agenda). Visit Moorten’s Botanical Garden, an outdoor museum featuring all sorts of cacti and succulents, hike the Palm Canyon, take a mid-century house tour, stealthily visit that pink door….or just chill at the pool.
STAY The Ace Palm Springs. Yes, the Ace got so hipster that, at some point that it actually tuned chill again. Plus the onsite restaurant, Kings Highway, is one of our favorite spots for brunch, a date shake, or dinner.
That’s it: my ultimate California road trip itinerary! I hope you like it and if you go, be sure to tag @saltandwind and @californiaweekend so we can follow along.
California Road Trip Planner
Did you know we’re also a boutique travel agency that specializes in California vacation planning? If you’re looking to plan a trip to California, our California trip planner services are here to help you plan your perfect itinerary.
Photo Credit: Opening photo by Patrick Tomasso, Pigeon Point Lighthouse by James Besser, Big Sur photo by Photo by Thomas Ciszewski, Malibu photo by Gerson Repreza, and all other photos by Ana Kamin